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New Jersey by Bob Rendell

Take Notice of Emerging Playwright
Lydia R. Diamond

Stick Fly
John Wesley and Michole Briana White
Stick Fly, the lively and engaging new play currently on view at the McCarter Theatre, is the work of Lydia R. Diamond, who is described in a program note as "the emerging and celebrated writer." Her plays have generally had their premieres in Chicago where Diamond is a resident playwright at a local theatre company. However, the work of Ms. Diamond is new to me and very likely will be to most of the McCarter audience. Thus, McCarter is giving us the very real pleasure of being introduced to a playwright whose characters and dialogue make it clear that she is the real thing. Although her Stick Fly is in need of sharper focus and construction, it is filled with dialogue that is witty, intelligent and true to her complex characters.

Stick Fly is set among the upper crust African-American social aristocracy, represented here by the LeVays of Martha's Vineyard. The LeVays are well established, professional class, and privileged. Present at the family mansion in the Vineyard for the weekend are brain surgeon Joseph LeVay along with his two Harvard (where else?) educated sons. Each son has brought his girlfriend along. Rounding out the company is the longtime family maid's college-age daughter who is filling in for her absent mother.

Daddy Joseph and older son Flip are cut from the same cloth. Both are doctors (Flip is a plastic surgeon) and both are womanizers. Flip is well into his thirties, and casual sex without marriage or children is his wont. His "straight up WASP," privileged, do-gooder girlfriend Kimber majored in African-American studies in college. Although at one time, Kimber dated black men in order to punish her parents for their privileged status, now she truly wants to marry Flip and raise a family with him.

The thirtyish younger son Kent (Spoon) has just completed writing a novel and feels that he has found his niche as an author. Dad Joseph, who paid for law, business and sociology degrees for him, will not accept that Kent is a writer; to dad, "the boy is a fuck-up." Kent is planning on marrying his girlfriend, Taylor, who is doing her post-doctorate in entomology at Johns Hopkins. More on Taylor shortly. Cheryl, the maid's daughter, attends a very exclusive private Manhattan high school on scholarship. Joseph observes that "a black girl with a diploma from that school can go anywhere." Hovering off-stage are the strongly felt presences of two missing mothers. One is Mrs. LeVay, who lives for such gatherings, and the other is the family maid, whose absence is unaccountable. If you are good at figuring out mysteries, you probably already have enough information in this paragraph to figure out one of the key melodramatic bombs which will drop on the LeVay household over the course of the weekend. The most tiresome and needless revelation will be that Taylor and Flip had an affair some years earlier. Flip will make a move on her.

From this high powered, intellectual crowd, Taylor Bradley Scott, Spoon's intended, emerges as the smartest, strongest, funniest and most serious, combative and engaging character. In fact, until author Diamond pretty much abandons Taylor in order to concentrate on the dysfunctions of the LeVay household, Taylor is the star and main focus of Stick Fly.

There is a prologue to the play depicting the meeting of Taylor and Kent at the funeral of the renowned black sociologist, Dr. James Bradley Scott. Taylor is Dr. Scott's unrecognized daughter from his first marriage. Raised by a single mother college professor, Taylor received neither the social status nor the financial benefits of her father's position. The effect on each character of his/her race, sex, personal history and social status plays a major and complex role in determining where he or she is at, and among the Vineyard weekenders, Taylor is the outsider. Although Taylor is unusually brilliant, those of us born neither to privilege nor deprivation will most associate with her. Taylor is the only one who feels the need to be validated and accepted by the LeVay circle. For any number of reasons, that acceptance does not come easily or fully. Moreover, the elite regard her struggle for equality and acceptance as petty and unworthy because she has had it so good, relative to minority youths on the bottom rung of the ladder. It is the liberal Peace Corps veteran Kimber, who is the most coldly and shallowly dismissive of her. When Taylor fights back against Kimber, going beyond the accepted constraints of polite society, the others turn on her.

Taylor explains to Joseph how the intricacies of a fly in motion are studied by gluing a fly to a wooden stick and filming it from three sides (after which it is thrown away and the film is studied). This communicates to the audience how Taylor feels in the LeVay house, and author Diamond's scorn for the manner in which sociologists deal with underclass blacks.

The entire company does justice to the nuances and contradictions within each role. Michole Briana White fully conveys Taylor's burning intelligence and confrontational fervor without ever diminishing her likeability. Kevin T. Carroll captures the shrinking of Kent's vulnerability as, with the support of Taylor, he grows increasingly less needful of his father's approval.

Monette Magrath brings a blithe and subtly off-putting sense of unearned superiority to her Kimber. Javon Johnson is believably less than likeable as the self-satisfied, self-centered Flip.

John Wesley keeps us off balance as the admirable/not so admirable Dr. Joseph LeVay. A Jekyll and Hyde kind of guy, Wesley fully conveys his bitter selfishness. However, whenever he makes a case for himself, it turns out to be a good one. As written, this role leaves a lot of room for interpretation, and Wesley plays it down the middle allowing the audience to judge Joseph LeVay for itself. Julia Pace Mitchell does such a fine job of capturing the turmoil and growing sense of entitlement of the maid's daughter Cheryl that it is churlish to note that she appears to be too old to capture all the pathos in the role.

Director Shirley Jo Finney has elicited solid performances from all hands and keeps the action moving at a good clip. However, and it is difficult to properly assess responsibility here, Ms. Finney has not been able to keep the focus of the play sufficiently on Taylor, nor has she highlighted or demarcated the action as so to give added emphasis to particular dramatic moments.

There is a large, detailed set by Felix E. Cochren which includes foliage and a visible lighthouse. Yet it falls short of capturing the sense of luxury to which the text refers. Karen Perry's costumes are exemplary.

Stick Fly is a fascinating and perceptive play which deals with aspects of African-American life which have been underrepresented in the American theatre. Although author Lydia R. Diamond has tried to get more into Stick Fly than one play can accommodate, it certainly contains much of value and, with some restructuring, it could become well known and influential.

With its current production of Stick Fly, The McCarter Theatre is bringing an exciting new voice in the American theatre to New Jersey. Go, and make the acquaintance of playwright, Lydia Diamond. You will be glad that you did.

Stick Fly continues performances (Eves.: Tues./Wed,/Thurs./Sun. 7:30 p.m.; Fri./Sat. 8 p.m.; Mats.: Sat. 3 p.m./ Sun. 2 p.m. – No 7:30 PM perf. 10/14) through October 14, 2007 at the McCarter Theatre Center (Berlind Theatre), 91 University Place, Princeton, NJ 08540. Box Office: 609-258-5050; online: www.mccarter.org.

Stick Fly by Lydia R. Diamond; directed by Shirley Jo Finney

Cast
Cheryl Washington……………...Julia Pace Mitchell
Taylor Bradley Scott………....Michole Briana White
Kent Levay (Spoon)…………………kevin T. Carroll
Flip Levay……………………………...Javon Johnson
Joseph Levay……………………………....John Wesley
Kimber Davies…………………….Monette Magrath


Photo: T. Charles Erickson


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- Bob Rendell



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